"Don't go far.....and be back for dinner ! " Growing up in a small provincial town in England in the early seventies, seems to be a world away from the childhood experiences of today. During summer holidays gangs of us would escape to the fields just a few hundred yards away from our houses, trek into town, or just play ball in the street. I even recall one summer when we were enduring a heatwave, my auntie who had drawn the lucky "custodian" card, had turfed us out of the house to "enjoy the sunshine". On that occasion far from being a joyous golden excuse to play and generally get up to no good, the relentless battering from the sun drove us to seek shade wherever we could find it. Even now, more than forty years later we all look back on that cruelly hot day and laugh. "I still can't believe I threw you poor little buggers out into that heat. I looked out of the window, and there you all were, sitting - huddled - in the shade of the garden shed". I love my auntie.
That was a different world, a different time. Now kids are ferried around in cars to prearranged play "appointments" where anxious parents breathe sighs of relief that their precious cargo has been successfully transplanted from one cocoon to another, only to then worry about inordinate amounts of time computer gaming, excessive inertia, expanding waistlines and the inability to interact with anything that doesn't have a touch screen. Is it then any wonder, that half a world away in the rural idyll of Ohio, photographer (and parent) Jesse Lenz seeks to preserve the gentle days of innocence and sunshine that his own children are able to enjoy. The Locusts is Lenz's debut photobook, and is quite simply one of the most beautiful releases of the year. Not only visually, but also in terms of its production. Lush thick inks rest on warm textured paper, the light sheen of the images contrasting with the matt of the stock beneath it. The cloth covered boards with tipped in image complete this flawlessly elegant design. Some artists wait eons to see their work presented in such a way. It is to Lenz’s credit that he has taken his time and been able to present his first book to the world on his own terms.
Sensitivity rendered in monochrome, Lenz’s photography manages to be both of its time and yet timeless. Of paramount importance on entering the world of The Locusts, is to understand that it is not some utopian fiction where children are sheltered and closeted beings, living in a cocooned fairy tale. Lenz has not attempted to portray a construct, but in allowing his camera to record everything these children experience, he has inadvertently become the narrator, the story teller, and whether he realises it or not, the Grimm brother. The pen has been replaced with a camera, as these diminutive human beings naturally go about learning life lessons, both good and bad. And let us not forget, that the true origins of what we now call fairytales were themselves rooted in much darker realities. The bucolic, never ending fields and landscapes become both playgrounds and school rooms. Places where the sounds of laughter and exploration alternate with the silence and curiosity of being confronted with nature’s ominous and unavoidable balancing act. For every celebration of life there is a reminder that death is never far away. The assurance that for every risk taken, no outcome is certain. A stern reality that for every castle stormed, every tree scaled, the rewards can vary.
From the unquestionable triumph that exists in an attempt born of innocence, with little lungs filled with the squeals of celebration. To the reality of failure. Blackened eyes, bruises and those same lungs roaring in pain. A reminder that life doesn’t always play fair. Lesson one. And so in amongst the lazy days spent cooling and splashing in paddling in pools, or retreating from the midday sun, to the safety of the house and the world of wonders between the covers of a favourite book, little dramas unfold.
A bruised eye, worn as a medal. A lifeless bird held up. A trophy, a puppet, anything but a cause for concern. The body of a coyote cradled in long grass by a roadside, its pint sized observer, nonchalant, unperturbed. A pregnant opossum ripped apart and decorating asphalt, the half formed bodies of her unborn joeys torn from her belly, scattered around her.
Life is inevitably from time to time - and generally with no warning - cruel. However, it is also the most wonderful gift we will ever receive, and whilst we negotiate the unwelcome whispers of reality and the cautionary reminders that lurk in the shadows, we should never forget the tree houses, the winter snows in which to roll and burrow, and the fields in which we play, whether grass or concrete.
Lenz’s world of laughter, bruises and cautionary tales will no doubt stand his young charges in good stead as they grow - maybe even outgrow their slice of paradise, and possibly swap fields of green for fields of glass....for a few years at least. I asked Jesse only one question before preparing this; “Why Locusts?” “Good question” he replied. I did receive an answer, and a beautifully personal one. If I had guessed, I would not have been too far away from elements of his reply, but on reflection I almost wished I hadn’t asked. The Locusts is a wonderfully enigmatic title, and on reflection, as far as I’m concerned it should stay that way. One thing is for sure, most of us will submerge ourselves in this beautiful book, experiencing one of several emotions, some of envy and some of nostalgia. I’m lucky enough to know which group I fall into. Did I say I loved my auntie.
This review first appeared on photobookstore.co.uk